Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Mortgaged Futures: Trauma, Subjectivity, and the Legacies of Colonialism in Tsitsi Dangarembga's the Book of Not

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Mortgaged Futures: Trauma, Subjectivity, and the Legacies of Colonialism in Tsitsi Dangarembga's the Book of Not

Article excerpt

Because it ... den[ies] the other person all attributes of humanity, colonialism forces the people it dominates to ask themselves the question constantly: "In reality, who am I?"

Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

I was ... being transformed into a young woman with a future. What I was most interested in was myself and what I would become.

Tsitsi Dangarembga, The Book of Not


In World Memory, a collection of essays on trauma, memory, and witnessing in global contexts, Jill Bennett and I argued that trauma studies has been circumscribed by its predominant focus on Euro-American events and experiences and particularly the Holocaust. We called for a transformation of the field from a monocultural discipline grounded in a psychoanalytic methodology to a "mode of enquiry that can inform the study of memory within a changing global context." To facilitate this transformation, we advocated that trauma scholars engage with "the multicultural and diasporic nature of contemporary culture," and that postcolonial critics engage with trauma studies to develop frameworks for analyzing the traumatic legacies of colonialism (5). Our concern was not simply that trauma studies was impoverished by failing to address non-Western memories of trauma and loss. Rather, we were concerned that opportunities for understanding the historical traumas and sufferings of other cultures as transmitted through truth commissions, literature, film, and visual art were being denied by the Western orientation of trauma studies. If "trauma's address beyond itself" was indeed, as Cathy Caruth proposed, to function "as a means of moving out of a 'historical isolation,'" it would be necessary for literary and cultural critics to engage with diverse testimonial practices and cultural languages of trauma (11). In recent years, trauma studies has become increasingly global, although there is still, arguably, limited dialogue regarding the core concepts and frameworks of postcolonial theory and trauma theory. In this essay, I pursue the project of "wording" trauma studies through a reading of Tsitsi Dangarembga's recent novel The Book of Not (2006), which addresses issues of trauma, colonialism, and denial during the violent transformation from white-minority rule in Rhodesia in the 1970s to an independent Zimbabwe in the 1980s. This novel, a compelling contribution to the contemporary literature of trauma, expands the canon beyond Western experiences, introducing new voices, subjectivities, and legacies of colonial trauma. At the same time, it enables critics to ask to what extent Western trauma theory provides a productive lens through which to address issues of postcolonialism, racism, and identity. As I write in April 2007, stories about the political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe, the desperate state of its people, and the brutalities being perpetrated against opponents of the Mugabe regime feature regularly in the international media, a potent reminder of how the unresolved legacies of colonial trauma haunt the global future.

Along with novels such as Yvonne Vera's Stone Virgins (2002), The Book of Not is part of a recent flowering of Zimbabwean women's writing, that is concerned with, among other things, the war of liberation and its after-effects. (1) Much of the historical and fictional literature of the Zimbabwean war has been written by men and has obscured women's experiences of war (Lyons 26). Whereas Mothers of the Revolution presents oral testimony from Zimbabwean women involved in the war, Dangarembga innovatively uses irony, humor, and farce to dramatize the absurdities of racism in a colonial society and the impediments to witnessing it, thereby bringing into visibility what is unspeakable in (post)colonial Zimbabwe. The novel dramatizes the narrator's struggle to break out of a repetition compulsion, manifested in her obsessive desire for recognition, which continually leaves her deflated and depressed. …

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